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Revisiting John Lennon's bubblegum nightmare 'Double Fantasy'

@SamWKemp

John Lennon’s final album is a curious beast. Poorly received on release and subsequently re-appraised following Lennon’s tragic death in 1980, Double Fantasy, released just weeks before, is the perfect example of how an artist’s life can come to define their art. But is it possible that enough time has finally passed for us to look at Lennon’s final venture a little more objectively? Are we at last at the point where we can separate Lennon’s life from his musical output and deal with his songwriting on its own terms? Let’s find out as we explore what we got right and what we got wrong about Double Fantasy.

Double Fantasy marked the return of John Lennon after six years of absence. To the outside, it seemed as though Lennon was, at last, taking a break from the world of music, using the opportunity to spend much-needed time with his wife Yoko and their sons, Julian and Sean. What the outside world was unaware of, however, was that Lennon had been writing songs in the privacy of his own home practically every day during that period. The issue was, that he couldn’t help wondering if he’d lost his touch.

Then, in the spring of 1980, Lennon bit the bullet and made a phone call to record producer Jack Douglas, informing him that he had an “amazing opportunity” but that it had to remain a secret. Lennon instructed a slightly bewildered Douglas to board a plane from Cold Spring Harbour, which would take him to his address. When he arrived, Douglas was greeted not by Lennon himself but by his wife, Yoko Ono. “John wants to do a record; he wants you to produce it,” she said, handing him a sealed envelope with a note reading: “For Jack’s ears only.”

The lengths Lennon went to avoid word of the new album spreading revealed his anxiety that he would be outed as having somehow ‘lost it’. On release, Double Fantasy would make Lennon’s nightmarish vision a reality. Simply put, the album was torn to shreds. In the United States, the press found little of worth to write about, noting how tracks like ‘Dear Yoko’ and ‘Yes, I’m Your Angel’ represented the pinnacle of middle-aged irrelevance. Nobody wanted to hear Lennon sing about his cosy family life, least of all the British music press, for whom Double Fantasy embodied everything the punk movement had tried to trample into non-existence.

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Then something strange happened. Double Fantasy, which had only been on record store shelves for three weeks, and which had been almost universally panned by critics, suddenly saw a rocketing in sales. The reason? A shooting that left John Lennon bleeding out on the paving slabs in front of his luxury apartment in New York. Within weeks, Double Fantasy had gone platinum, with songs like ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’, which sees Lennon sing the line ” Good night, Sean, see you in the morning”, suddenly resonating in an entirely new and undeniably poignant way.

Still, one can’t help but think those original critics had a point. Double Fantasy is an album from another time, with tracks like ‘[Just Like] Starting Over’ featuring the lush arrangments of ’50s bubblegum pop, an odd choice for a man who had spent a lifetime trying to escape his pop roots. It also has to be said that tracks like ‘Yes I’m Your Angel’ sound as though they’ve been plucked straight out of some gooey Julie Andrews-inspired movie in which hordes of slightly podgy children clad in Lederhosen gather around John and Yoko to sing songs and eat kippers. That being said, I can’t help feeling a twang of affection for Double Fantasy.

In many ways, it’s the most Paul McCartney record John Lennon ever wrote, offering a glimpse of the man who lay beneath all those layers of pretence. Yes, it’s true that this version of Lennon is slightly sickening, but his songs really aren’t that bad. ‘[Just Like] Starting Over’ is a masterful piece of songwriting that just happened to arrive at the wrong time, its jazz-inflexions forming the template of practically every downbeat song Alex Turner has ever written. Listen to his soundtrack for Submarine if you don’t believe me, go on.

Overall, I think Double Fantasy is getting better with age. It had a wobbly childhood, a fairly stable if slightly over romanticised adulthood, and now I think it’s entering a new stage. The issue with Lennon’s final record is that it has always been too tightly bound to its creator’s memory, being compared either to his work back in the early ’70s, or, after his death, being held up as an example of his enduring genius. But, for me, the best way to listen to Double Fantasy is to ignore all that and deal with the songs on their own terms: as a collection of finely-honed pieces which were never intended to change the world.